Twice now, Margaret Abe-Koga has found herself serving as mayor during historic national disasters.
In 2009, she was appointed mayor by fellow council members and led the city through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, making meticulous cuts to the city budget to save as little as $500.
Named the mayor again in January, Abe-Koga got a two-month honeymoon before a global pandemic locked down the Bay Area. Local businesses shuttered -- some permanently -- and residents were forced to stay home under public health orders.
Call it a stroke of bad luck, but Abe-Koga, now seeking her fourth term on the council, said she believes she has the experience to navigate Mountain View through unprecedented challenges. The city is facing wildfires, a pandemic and civil unrest, she said, and experience will count in managing the response effort.
Abe-Koga served on the council from 2006 to 2014 and was elected to a third term after a two-year hiatus in 2016 (council members are limited to two consecutive terms). Over those three terms, she championed efforts to raise the local minimum wage and helped draft the city's current general plan, which served as the blueprint for housing rezoning. She also pushed for environmental sustainability initiatives aimed at fighting climate change, including a ban on natural gas for new home construction.
On the campaign trail this year, however, Abe-Koga has focused much of her platform on the the immediate problem of how to rebuild after COVID-19. She said the city must provide financial assistance to those who can't pay the rent due to COVID-19, and small businesses need the city's help with everything from loans to advertising and promotion.
"Small business is key, and that's going to be the focus," Abe-Koga said. "How are we going to get our economy up and running, how are we going to get people back to work."
While many of her opponents have focused on housing growth as a key part of their platform, Abe-Koga has not. She said the city has made strides to rezone for new housing construction in North Bayshore and East Whisman, and that it's up to the development community to follow through.
Realistically, it's going to take serious incentives in order to prevent development from grinding to a complete halt during the COVID-19 downturn in the economy, she said. She recalls seeing a graph showing that the Great Recession had done just that, and said that it's time for the city to brainstorm ways to avoid a repeat.
"Housing production was keeping up with demand until the recession, and then there was just no building, I remember that in 2009," Abe-Koga said. "How do we prevent that has been the question I've been trying to think through."
Abe-Koga has historically opposed Mountain View's rent control law, calling it the wrong fix to the high cost of housing and likely to bring unintended consequences. More recently, she referred to the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA) as costly and overly strict, although the city has since recouped the cost of launching the program.
Earlier this year, Abe-Koga said she and her colleagues tried to find a middle ground that both landlords and tenants could live with through Measure D. Though the measure was defeated by a large margin in March, Abe-Koga said she still stands by what she tried to do to bridge the divide.
"That's what policymaking is, it's trying to find compromise and to find middle ground," she said. "It didn't work, the voters spoke, and I accept that. We're trying to make the best of what we have."
Abe-Koga said she does support rent stabilization from mobile homes, but she firmly believes that they ought to be covered through a city ordinance rather than the CSFRA. The city's rent control law wasn't written in a way that works for mobile homes, she said, conflicting with the state's Mobilehome Residency Law, and the law is not written to suggest mobile homes were meant to be covered.
"Ultimately, that's the bottom line. It just doesn't say that, and if it did say that we wouldn't be here," Abe-Koga said. "I know folks have been told that it would cover them, but there is nothing in there that says that."
In order to draft a rent stabilization ordinance for mobile homes, Abe-Koga and other council members sought to make abundantly clear mobile homes are not covered under CSFRA, which was inserted into Measure D. She said the mission was ultimately to help mobile home residents, but the perception was that it was an attack on mobile home residents. She called it an uphill battle due to a misunderstanding and spin.
"I think the solutions we were proposing were good, but we weren't successful in explaining what the problem was that we were trying to fix," she said.
Abe-Koga was among the council members who proposed a ban of oversized vehicles on narrow streets, which was subject to a referendum and is now on the ballot as Measure C. She said Mountain View has taken a compassionate approach to the growing number of homeless residents living in cars and RVs through its safe parking program, giving vehicle dwellers a safe and stable place to park while receiving case management services.
But compassion must come hand in hand with enforcement, and she said the city needs to implement parking restrictions to nudge homeless people into the safe parking program. Measure C is the missing piece to make the program work, she said.
"If you don't have restrictions on parking on the street, then there is not an incentive to move into the lots," she said. "I don't think we can accommodate for them on the streets, and that's really what measure C is saying."
It's unlikely that the city will put the parking enforcement measures in effect until next year at the earliest, Abe-Koga said, at which point the city's safe parking lot capacity will have increased to 103 spaces. The city is also expected to have a brand new transitional housing project to support up to 100 homeless seniors and families.
These resources still won't be enough for everyone who needs it, however, and Abe-Koga said Mountain View can't be solely responsible for every homeless person who wants services in the region.
"There is no limit, and there is no end to this if we allow it to be the way it is," she said. "I guess what I'm saying is, practically speaking, we don't have the resources to help everybody. We need other cities to do their part."
On community policing, Abe-Koga said she is proud of the Mountain View Police Department, believes it has "top notch" staff and provides an excellent service to the community. Though she strongly opposes any calls for outright abolishing the department, she said the recent civil unrest does present a good opportunity to revisit how police operate in the city.
Her response to the protests and passionate testimony at recent council meetings was to create a new subcommittee focused on the issues of race, equity and inclusion. She said she believes the committee can look not only at specific changes to police policy -- like altering use of force policies in the mold of the 8 Can't Wait campaign -- but can broadly examine race relations as it relates to law enforcement.
"I wanted to make sure that we look at these issues from a holistic approach, and police is definitely a part of that," she said.
When asking reallocating funds out of the police department and into other types of first responders, like mental health care workers and social workers, Abe-Koga said she would be willing to explore the idea.
"I have heard people say just get rid of the police, and I don't think that's a viable option," Abe-Koga said. "People want responses and they want response times to be fast, so to dismantle the police -- I just don't think that's practical."